The subject of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is quite a challenging topic for most people to discuss, which is unfortunate because it is also a rather important subject. By its very nature, this is a complicated subject because it requires a rather broad perspective. At one end, it requires at least some rudimentary understanding of the molecular mechanisms employed by living organisms to encode, regulate, and express the traits that define us. At the other end, it requires some understanding or knowledge of global issues such as food security, economics, and even climate change. Unless one takes the time to become informed, it is all too likely that opinions will be formed by personal prejudices that influence the news sources that we follow, that dictate our opinions about large corporations or the government, and so forth. This makes the discussion political, and consequently polarizing. When an issue becomes so political, the result is that emotions (and emotional manipulation) often hold more sway than than reason or understanding. My goal here is to take a look at the “big picture”, so to speak, and to apply my understanding of the basic biology behind the genetic modification of organisms to a discussion of this serious issue using the simplest terms possible (for me). This will be the second of what I expect to be a three-part series.
So where does one begin a discussion about the societal impacts of genetically modifying our food sources? Too often, this discussion is framed in the context of pitting “big agriculture” versus “local, organic production”, unfairly characterizing genetic engineering as a tool of evil corporations that are out to crush honest, hardworking, organic farmers. Sounds a bit like a comic book plot, right? This happens to be a very narrow view of the issue, and one that primarily takes the perspective of the developed world. In my opinion, the more appropriate context is to consider this issue in terms of food security for a world that houses a rapidly-expanding human population possessed of an insatiable desire for energy and resource consumption. There is little doubt that the human population is growing rapidly. In 2011, we reached a world population of 7 billion people, by 2024 we are expected to reach a population of 8 billion people, and then by 2040 the world population should reach 9 billion people. Odds are pretty good that we will not stop there. However you want to look at it, that is a lot of people to feed, and we are already not doing so well in terms of global food distribution at the moment. According to the 2013 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we currently have around 842 million people (12% of the world population) that are unable to obtain even the minimum number of daily calories required to sustain an active existence. Although food insecurity can and does exist even in developed nations, the overwhelming majority of these people reside in parts of Asia (primarily Eastern, Southeastern, and Southern Asia), as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. Want to guess where most of the top 20 largest and fastest-growing countries can be found? So how do we feed all of those people?
That is a complicated question. In a gross oversimplification of global agriculture and economics, there are basically two general approaches to producing more food: 1) you could convert more land to agricultural use, or 2) you could increase the amount of calories produced by the land that is already being used. Naturally, you could use a combination of both approaches as well. The first general approach is quite obviously a challenge, as land is a limited and valuable resource, and not all land is suitable for agriculture. Quite often, land that is ideal for agriculture is also sought after for private or commercial development, making it expensive for small farmers to acquire land for cultivation or pasture. More important, however, is the issue of unequal distribution of arable land. Adding more cropland in a country like the United States does not directly benefit people starving in Sub-Saharan Africa unless there is a serious investment in foreign aid on the part of the country with a surplus. Although foreign aid and relief efforts are often desperately-needed and well-received, they are really only temporary solutions to the problem of food insecurity, as they do not result in a sustainable, long-term solution help those in need to become self-sufficient. You would have to be able to add more arable land where it is needed, and often that would either be damaging to the environment, or else simply not an option. I could write an entire post about the issues with converting rainforest into cropland, but suffice it to say that the quality of the land gained is seldom worth the loss of habitat and reduction in biodiversity that it costs. It is equally impractical to attempt to convert arid desert into productive cropland, which would be the only option available to many people. Granted, possible solutions vary depending upon the location, but for many people there are just not a lot of options to add more farmland. So what about the other approach?
Instead of looking for ways to add more farmland, we could instead look for ways to increase the amount of calories being produced by the land already in use. There are a variety of approaches that might accomplish that goal, and I will certainly not touch on every one. In another oversimplification, there are two general approaches that could be taken to accomplish this goal: 1) you could increase outputs by changing cultural practices to emphasize food sources that produce more calories per acre, or 2) you could increase the output/yield of the food sources currently being employed…and yes, a combination of these approaches could also be used. An example of changing cultural habits might be to reduce meat consumption and replace pasture land with crop land in order to grow more cereals or other crops. Sounds easy, right? Except that the reaction would likely be what you might expect. Would you want to be told that you should stop eating meat for the greater good? I mean, if you think about the impacts of excessive meat consumption on health and the environment, you might conclude that we probably should reduce our intake, but that is not the point. How excited would you be about someone from another country, who enjoys a higher standard of living than you, telling you what you should grow and eat? It is not even necessarily that people would be reluctant to give up traditional eating habits, either. In many cases, it would also require people to give up a more lucrative source of income in order to grow more food that earns little income in return. If there is a demand for a product, it is likely that someone will seek to supply that product. That is why opium cultivation hit record highs in Afghanistan last year. Why grow barley if the return on opium is so much higher?
Hopefully you are starting to get a better idea of how complicated the situation is when it comes to global food security. I am barely scratching the surface here, and simplifying things considerably. We took a look at some of the general approaches to increasing food production where it is needed most. Although not necessarily the case everywhere, simply farming more land is frequently not an option, or at least, not the best option. Furthermore, that assessment is simply talking about land in terms of quantity, without taking into account the quality of the land. Issues with poor soil quality, limited access to water, and variable climate can all impact the productivity of farm land. Although we could argue at length about the merits of changing cultural habits, it is difficult to argue with the laws of supply and demand. Besides, in many places the issue is not cultural habits, but rather trying to produce enough food to support the local population with insufficient resources. So that brings us to the other approach, which is trying to find ways to increase the productivity of your land. This is where genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms come into play, and will be the focus of the next article in this series, so stay tuned!
Thanks for reading!